The Teleological Incline: Reconciling Materialist Reductionism and Final Causation

My dialogue with Matthew Hutson, the author of The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, over the last few days has been stimulating and thought provoking. As I’ve been thinking about our conversation, I’ve been refining my rejoinder to his purely materialist, reductionist perspective. Here’s one way to summarize my view:

Even assuming that all particle interactions are random and that evolution is the product of this chance natural selection (about which I remain agnostic), the mechanistic materialist perspective is not necessarily incompatible with teleology, as there seems to be an implicit asymmetry in the nature of being that causes those chance interactions to add up to a larger process which tends towards increasing novelty, order, and consciousness. It’s as if we have lived all our lives on a slight slope, but we assume that slope to be completely flat because we have never known any other inclination. Our whole physics, our whole science is designed assuming that we are working on a flat plane when the truth seems to be that the deep cosmic structure is tilted ever so slightly in the temporal dimension towards the emergence of consciousness. Therefore, we may never be able empirically to show that there is this tendency until we have adjusted our whole mode of thought to take this deeply concealed factor into account. We need not necessarily change our physics because they work within their domain of applicability, like Newtonian physics works between the very large and the very small, though this metaphysical shift might open up new areas of physical research. But we must also consider the possibility that our physics are perfectly constructed to hide a miniscule slant in the nature of reality (this is, of course, only a metaphor for a higher order phenomenon that exceeds the scope of spatiality), which over very long periods of time produces directionality in the entire process. Even our most advanced physics, quantum theory and relativity, do not take into account that time is apparently a fractal dimension (as Jean Gebser and Terence McKenna suggest in different inflections—more about this another time), which we are moving through like a ball rolling down a barely discernible incline. If we could perceive the fullness of the temporal fourth dimension mathematically described by relativity as we see the three spatial dimensions, perhaps we would understand that time has a qualitative topology, but one that tends towards novelty just as gravity tends to draw massive objects together.

Thus, the choice is not between materialist reductionism and theistic intelligent design. In fact, the choice is not even between purely materialist reductionism and a subtle teleology almost imperceptibly guiding the evolutionary process. Rather, it seems to me that there is no choice because both perspectives are true within their domains of validity. Looked at atomistically, I would argue that evolution is most likely a purely random physical process. But looked at as an emergent whole, it is an undeniably teleological process. Thus, the paradox can be resolved, as is so often the case, by pushing through to a deeper level of meaning where the seemingly incommensurable perspectives can be reconciled. The material facts require the teleological narrative to give them meaning and direction, while the teleological narrative requires the material facts to give it the medium of concrete actuality in which the final cause must be expressed.

I’ve employed this quote from John Stuart Mill’s Coleridge essay in several conversations I’ve had here lately, but it bears repeating:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

If everyone who asserted one view in opposition to another (science vs. religion, reductionism vs. teleology, etc.) could recognize that all modes of thought have partial validity (though perhaps not equal validity), we could get on with discussing the really interesting questions, like what would it mean to experience the fourth, temporal dimension as fully as we experience the three spatial dimensions, and is such a thing even possible? Why do we have complete freedom of movement in the three spatial dimensions, but we are seemingly locked into a linear movement through time, which is mathematically describable as a fourth spatial dimension? In my opinion, we have the three spatial dimensions pretty well sussed out, so the frontier of human understanding ripe for discovery is time, and specifically approaches that interpret temporality as qualitative rather than quantitative, from Jungian synchronicity and Bergsonian duration to Tarnasian archetypal cosmology. But that’s a subject for another day.

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5 responses to “The Teleological Incline: Reconciling Materialist Reductionism and Final Causation

  1. Pingback: Refining the Teleological Vision: A Response to Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” | Rock and Roll Philosopher

  2. IntelligentAnimation

    I like your writing style and your attempt to find a middle ground. I feel confident in middle ground positions, and indeed, I support both evolution and teleology, so I am a bit of a centrist.

    Still, I can not agree that there is only a slight, barely-perceptible slope of tendency toward intelligence versus materialism. I just don’t see this as a close call at all, at least not in biology. Literally every aspect of all life forms, including all formations, movements and thoughts, overwhelmingly prove teleology at all times. If there is anything random in any life form, it must be in a different planet’s biosphere.

    The problem is that, despite this overwhelming and ubiquitous evidence for teleological intelligence, there are those who refuse to “accept” it under any circumstance. This is no seemingly flat plane. It is overwhelming, yet for some reason unacceptable, evidence (teleology) versus zero evidence but stubborn belief anyway (materialism).

    We now know that genetic changes are anything but random, and every living being has trillions upon trillions of functional purposive movements, with no random ones. Our brains form neural pathways based on thought, not the other way around, which wouldn’t have made sense anyway. There is no materialist explanation for consciousness, free will or any intelligence.

    Materialism is nothing but a religion that opposes all biological evidence.

  3. Hello, and thanks for your compliment on my writing and my approach. I agree with your point that teleology is undeniable, though I differ with you slightly about the most efficacious approach to materialism. The vast majority of educated people in our culture believe that life evolved through random natural selection, and there are many, many books and scientific papers that give rather convincing evidence to support this theory. I personally believe that there is also an intrinsic drive in the nature of process towards novelty, consciousness, and order, and I think there is a great deal of evidence to support this assertion, as you suggest. However, I do not think that any individual can viably claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of all available evidence, so the most pragmatic path forward in this controversy is to acknowledge that random natural selection may in fact be a mechanism for the evolution of species, but that, even if this theory is true, it does not preclude the validity of teleology. There is no airtight mathematical proof for either view, so both are ultimately subjective interpretations of unimaginably vast amounts of data.

    When I say that the “teleological incline” that I posit is slight, I mean that although its results are profound and radical, they occur over many, many millennia, so the change wrought by evolution is imperceptible within the span of a human life, and very small even in the subjectively vast span of human history. Thus, though the incline may be almost invisible, the ball will roll a very, very long way given enough time.

    I would argue that any beliefs we hold, whether reductive materialism, fundamentalist eschatology, or some middle-ground, is a kind of religion to the extent that it determines how we relate to “the ultimate conditions of [our] existence,” in the words of Robert Bellah. These are “over-beliefs,” as William James calls them, for they cannot be definitively proved, but only asserted based upon the way we “just feel the total push and pressure of the cosmos.” So I agree that materialism is essentially a kind of religion that often opposes the teleological evidence of biology. But rather than rejecting materialism because of its limitations, I think we should affirm what is right about it, namely, the great, centuries-long tradition of empirical science, but also affirm what it often denies, namely, teleology. This is a subtle difference from what you suggest, but an important one.

    To my mind, it is not necessary to take sides until one party or the other in an actual debate seeks to deny half of lived reality (whatever the controversy may be); then I would support asserting the validity of teleology against the dogmatic materialist and asserting the validity of science against the dogmatic religious person. But both materialism and religion in their more enlightened forms do not deny their opposite; they simply try to master their own perspective, which we can perhaps agree are complementary modes of thought for understanding both the meaning and the mechanics of evolution.

    • IntelligentAnimation

      Grant, the mechanics of evolution are primarily teleological. I appreciate philosophy and religion and finding a “meaning” for what they are, but science is supposed to be a different venture, a search for truth through evidence. Religion has a tendency to slant science so I prefer keeping science and religion separate.

      That is why I oppose both creationism and materialism. They both oppose evidence in order to promote arbitrary beliefs.

      If you feel there is evidence for Darwinism, please point me in that direction. A friend and I have an open challenge on another website to Darwinists to present any evidence for Darwinism they can find. When somebody actually attempts to do so, they usually either give evidence of evolution, while assuming the evolution occurred through Darwinism, or they simply quote someone who agrees with Darwinian concepts, but without evidence.

      Evidence for Darwinism could be evidence that genetics are random, and not related to useful need, but mostly detrimental chaos. We see precisely the opposite of this. Humans get dozens of mutations per generation and they are almost always purposive. Yet it takes only a couple of intentionally random changes by geneticists or a few doses of UV radiation, and you get certain death or disfigurement.

      The mathematical case against Darwinism is solid and unanimous. Some of the world’s greatest mathematicians have rejected Darwinism soundly, including 600 signatories to the first Wistar convention. Both Murray Eden and Fred Hoyle, have blasted Darwinism as hopelessly impossible. The Darwinist response is nothing but an expression of disbelief.

      I have been looking for evidence of Darwinism for 30 years and have found none. I have found lots of assumptions that fit a materialist belief.

      • Intelligent Sir, I’m not sure why you keep jumping back and forth between different posts, as it makes it difficult to follow the thread of conversation, and serves to nullify the progress we’ve made in coming to a consensus elsewhere. But let me just say that it seems like you’re having an argument with yourself here, as well as in the other conversation. You keep reverting to an oppositional mode of teleology vs. Darwinism that I find unproductive, and that has nothing to do with what I’m actually saying. I asked this question on the other post because I’m hoping you have the expertise to answer it: what is the positive content of Darwinism? You seem to be arguing exclusively against the negative assertions of Darwinism, such as the denial of teleology, about which we agree. So can we please put this issue to rest? What I’d like to know is: what does Darwinism assert that does not involve a denial of another form of belief? I hope you’ll be able, as a biologist, to answer this question more precisely than I can. I’m not asking if you agree with the claims or not, as you’ve made it abundantly clear that you do not, but I just want to know whether we agree on what the positive content of Darwinism actually is.

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